In breakthrough, scientists revive some brain activity of slaughtered pigs

Alicia Farmer
April 19, 2019

Scientists have managed to restore cell function in the brains of pigs hours after they died, in a breakthrough Wednesday that experts said threw into question the very notion of what makes animals - or even humans - alive. Following guidance from Yale University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), the team used the heads of pigs that had been raised as food livestock and were killed before the study began, as dictated by the 1966 Animal Welfare Act.

"This is not a living brain".

The scientists behind the research claim the development could help in the study and treatment of brain disorders.

The National Institutes of Health helped fund this research as part of the BRAIN Initiative, a major research effort started during the Obama administration. Such a head-snapping experiment inevitably generates nightmarish scenarios involving live brains in vats, brain transplants, the Zombie Apocalypse, and other mad-scientist story lines (brilliantly crafted, somehow, by neurons firing away inside the skulls of conventionally living human beings).

Researchers said they were anxious about ethical implications that could arise during the experiment - and during future similar experiments - and they monitored the brain activity to ensure the brains did not regain any level of consciousness.

The findings also lead to ethical quandaries, some of which are outlined in two commentaries simultaneously published by Nature.

"Is it possible in the future that more brain function could be restored?" wondered Christine Grady, chief of the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center.

CT scan of a dead pig brain as it was hooked up to the scientists' device.

Professor of medical ethics Dominic Wilkinson, who is also a consultant neonatologist in Oxford, said: "Once someone has been diagnosed as "brain dead" there is now no way for that person to ever recover". Previous experiments had already shown viable cells could be removed from brains hours after their owners were pronounced dead, but "once you do that, you are losing the 3D organization of the brain", Sestan pointed out.

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The brains underwent "perfusion", a process in which an artificial circulatory system was used to pump blood into the brain through connections to the carotid arteries.

This combination of images provided by the Yale School of Medicine in April 2019 shows stained microscope photos of neurons, green; astrocytes, red, and cell nuclei, blue, from a pig brain left untreated for 10 hours after death, left, and another with a specially designed blood substitute pumped through it.

"It also could stimulate research to develop interventions that promote brain recovery after loss of brain blood flow, such as during a heart attack".

"It is safe to assume that if this works for preservation of brain cells, it would also work after some tinkering with less sensitive organs in terms of keeping them preserved and keeping their function intact", Latham said.

How was function restored to the brain?

But the blocker also ensured the pig brain would not have any risk of awareness. Even though we haven't reached that point yet, if the brain is even partially functioning, is the animal still alive? However, such experiments may lead us into newer discussions and updated definitions of death.

Still the research raises a number of ethical questions and concerns.

The team from Yale University in the USA stressed the brain lacked any recognisable global electrical signals associated with normal brain function.

Derek Hill, a professor of medical imaging sciences at University College London, told Science Media Centre that "BrainEx most certainly didn't bring the brains back to life - and in particular there was no evidence of any electrical nerve activity in the brain".

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